No act of government is more essential to a democracy than the running of clean and honest elections. Voters have a right to expect their ballots to be counted accurately and for officials to take all reasonable and necessary steps to prevent fraud.
That's why the notion that voters should present a government-issued photo ID sounds compelling. For most of us, it would pose no particular hardship, as airport ticket agents, store cashiers and the guy who hands out bowling shoes at the local alley regularly ask for it, too.
But, in fact, it's a very bad idea that would harm the credibility of elections far more than help them. That's chiefly because an estimated 12 percent of eligible voters — many of them seniors, minorities, the disabled, students and the poor — would be potentially rejected from the process because they don't happen to own a photo identification card.
Yet last week, a House of Delegates committee held a hearing on a bill to institute a photo ID requirement in Maryland beginning in 2012, in a classic example of a solution in search of a problem. While allegations of widespread voter fraud are common enough in this and other states, rarely do they prove to have much substance. Time after time, polling anomalies labeled by critics as examples of voter fraud (voters recorded twice under the same name, dead people casting ballots, etc.) can be traced to simple clerical error.
As researchers at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law have documented repeatedly in recent years, these incidents are invariably caused by irregularities of the most banal nature. Typographical errors, bad data entry, mistakes in registration rolls and partial matches of people with similar names are the usual culprits.
Genuine voter fraud, where someone knowingly uses a false identity, is uncommon not because the existing system can't be breached by an enterprising crook (photo IDs can be faked, too, incidentally) but because the risk is not worth the puny reward. The crime is a felony punishable by prison time. But all that effort and danger secures the perpetrator just one extra vote. Even in the closest of national, statewide or even citywide elections, it would take an army of highly motivated evil-doers to even hope to sway the results by a hair.
Suppressing voter turnout, on the other hand, requires nothing more than passage of a law requiring thousands of potential voters to jump through some extra hoops. In previous generations, that might have meant a poll tax or literacy test. In this case, it's coming up with a photo ID — even one provided without charge, as the proposal would require the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration to provide at taxpayer expense.
Unfortunately, Republicans have sometimes used the phantom menace of fraud (and even the stupefying notion that undocumented aliens might risk exposure, prison time and deportation to cast an illegal ballot) to discourage turnout of certain qualified voters — low-income African-Americans being the most common target — prone to supporting Democrats.
Fraud should be guarded against, but so must creating undue burdens on voters that lead to shrinking numbers of people casting ballots in elections. Maryland already has adequate protections to prevent the former without imposing the latter. That all 17 of the House bill's sponsors are members of the GOP speaks volumes about the measure's political implications.